The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Oneworld Publications, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Kevan Manwaring
Diane Cook’s previous book, the short story collection Man V. Nature (2015),explored a similar schism to that in her Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The New Wilderness (2020), but this time the focus is very much ‘woman vs nature’ or rather, women working with nature. The story, set in an indeterminate, depleted near-future America, involves a mother, Bea(trice) and her daughter, Agnes, who leave the ‘City’ (an unnamed and unhealthy urban centre) due to the effect it is having on the daughter’s health (a serious lung condition). Bea decides to take part in an experiment in the ‘Wilderness State’ with her current partner, the academic Glen: a small group of people will live in the state as hunter-gatherers – forced by bullish Rangers to continually roam, leaving no trace.
As the accoutrements, sensibilities, and needs of ‘civilization’ fall away, the majority of the group find themselves adapting and attuning to their environment – hunting game, skinning and preparing hides, gathering berries and herbs, living and travelling lightly. Yet the outer world catastrophically disrupts this neo-arcadia – first with news of Bea’s mother’s death, and then with the arrival of ‘Newcomers’ and rule-breaking ‘Mavericks’. The apparently pristine aspect of the Wilderness State becomes compromised with tell-tale traces of the human invasive species – litter, truckers, the occasional corpse, and then eventually refugees escaping the increasingly brutal City. Unnamed ‘Administrations’ come and go, and with each regime change, the rules change, and the ‘Originalists’, as they self-define, are forced out of their comfort zone routine, range, and habitus again and again. Alongside these external pressures, internal tensions within the group threaten to split it apart. Alpha males and females jockey for power and control.
Bea is ostensibly the epitome of the ‘bad mother’ – abandoning her daughter; sleeping with the enemy – but Cook is careful to deconstruct this, and the backbone of the novel is the problematic mother/daughter relationship and how no one is perfect. The precocious daughter, Agnes, comes of age in the wilderness and adapts to it better than anyone. She is a skilled tracker and guide but is not the ‘leader’ she thinks she is. We are repeatedly shown how her knowledge of the world is flawed – she is continually wrongfooted and infuriated by her mother. The complexity of the love/hate between them is convincingly dramatized.
Cook brings alive the liminal existence of the group in the Wilderness State in a visceral, embodied way. Here, nature is no mere backdrop. It is centre stage and far from a picturesque ‘landscape’. In an explicitly ecological novel, living in ‘harmony’ with nature is not seen as a pretty thing – but messy and smelly, unsentimental and unforgiving. Nature – both the human and more-than-human kind – is red in tooth and claw.
Unlike so many dystopian narratives, the shock and awe are not evoked by images of ruined and rewilded cities but by a kind of crumbling of social mores and shibboleths – like so many overwhelmed coastal cities. The true ’apocalypse’ or revelation here is the ‘wilderness in us’, which emerges, as in Richard Jefferies’ After London, or Wild England (1895), after the implosion of civilization. It is a study of what we ‘truly are’ when the veneer has been stripped away – part adult Lord of the Flies, part nature documentary in which we are the subjects. It is a grim read at times, but it is electrified by Cook’s prose and deep insight into human nature.